NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - A controversy is brewing over a change to Oscar's feature documentary rules.
Because of the change -- which required a one-week qualifying run in New York by August 31 -- one of the year's most buzzed-about documentaries, the Israeli animated film "Waltz With Bashir," won't be eligible for consideration. A host of executives and festival veterans are calling on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to revise the rule.
"I can't understand why the Academy is making it even more difficult for documentaries by saying you need some kind of shadow release," New York Film Festival programer Richard Pena said. "I don't see how this policy helps the greater good of cinema."
The Academy's goal -- as it has tinkered with its rules for documentary eligibility -- has been to encourage theatrical exhibition of documentaries with awards hopes.
Under the previous rules, that meant a doc had to be screened for one week in either Los Angeles or New York, while also logging 14 three-day bookings in at least 10 states.
For the upcoming 81st Annual Academy Awards, the rule was simplified: This year, contending docs are simply required to screen for one week in both Los Angeles County and Manhattan by August 31.
But while a distributor could avoid New York under the old rules, under the new rule an early New York screening is required. Distributors, on the other hand, don't want to expose films to the New York media until they begin their formal rollouts.
There's an added complication: If a film opens in New York for a qualifying run during the first half of the year, then the prestigious New York Film Festival, which insists on screening New York premieres, won't program it.
"It's always been disastrous to make films qualify in August," said Toronto International Film Festival documentary chair Thom Powers. "The New York aspect makes it worse."
Documentary filmmaker Michael Apted, executive committee chair of the Academy's documentary branch, explained that the New York requirement was part of an effort to simplify the qualifying process by reducing the number of cities involved. He said there was little that could be done about the early deadline given the volume of films being submitted -- about 90 this year -- to the branch's small staff.
"We're under a lot of pressure from the film festivals to make a change in the rules," he said. "But the most important thing for me is that we watch every film properly."
Right now, fest executives and filmmakers are lobbying Academy members ahead of a meeting of the documentary committee set for the end of October. Powers has enlisted 75 filmmakers to sign a petition supporting a compromise: Under his plan, screeners would be submitted by the end of August, but the actual qualifying runs could take place later than that.
Any further change in the rules, though, won't take affect this year. That will be too late for "Bashir," which has become Exhibit A in the current contretemps.
To qualify the movie for Academy consideration, distributor Sony Pictures Classics would have had to open it in New York months ahead of its planned December 25 release. Major reviewers would have descended on the film, as they did when ThinkFilm/HBO Docs unsuccessfully tried to sneak "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" into Manhattan in March. And Sony Classics wouldn't have had any hopes that the film would be selected by the New York Film Festival.
Opting for the fest, which is currently underway, the distributor decided against qualifying the Israeli-language political toon in the documentary category, thereby losing out on the possibility that it might have become the first film ever to qualify in the best foreign-language, animated and documentary categories.
While refraining from criticizing the Academy, Sony Classics co-president Tom Bernard said that early New York qualifying runs are problematic because of the media's aggressiveness in covering them. "If critics weren't now running out to see movies during their qualifying run, I think the New York Film Festival would have looked the other way with 'Bashir,'" Bernard said. "The whole process needs to change."
The problems come on top of other issues for docs. The rules further stipulate that a documentary can't be televised or appear on the Internet until 60 days after its qualifying run -- a rule that's rough on docs because many are funded by television. This year, one of 2008's highest-grossing docs, Fox Searchlight's "Young@Heart," won't be eligible because of a British TV airing.